Debate and discussion: Erring on the side of liberty

Submitted by Anon on 23 March, 2004 - 8:36

The battles about hijab-wearing in French state schools have almost exclusively concerned girls of 13 or older. I would not argue that 13 is old enough to abandon entirely the supervision and discipline which we take as obviously necessary for smaller children, but which would be unjust imposition on, say, 18 year olds. I am in favour of public laws (against child labour, for a sexual age of consent), sometimes as a counter to parents' supervision.
Yet 13 year olds should have a wider limits within which to experiment and to make their own mistakes for themselves than younger children.

France's new law banning the hijab in state schools, moreover, will apply to 16, 17 and 18 year olds as much - and, probably, far more often - than to 13 year olds.

Mark Sandell's polemic against me (Solidarity 3/47) is written as if the new law is exclusively about creating a public counterweight to family pressure on very young girls to wear hijabs. But it is not.

Despite Mark's polemic, I made it clear in my article (Solidarity 3/46) that I do not believe that there is "mass revolt of Muslim girls demanding the right to wear the veil". A minority of French Muslim girls want to wear the hijab, with a wide variety and mix of motives.

Their hijab-wearing is not a flow-on from entrenched traditions in their migrant families and communities, but a (confused, and in objective social results reactionary) response, by French girls, to the world around them.

Early and mid-teens are often, perhaps usually, the time when we begin to experiment with our own philosophies, different both from our parents' and our peers'. The experiments may be half-baked, but we need freedom to make them.

French girls may wear the hijab in revolt against their cautious Muslim parents, or in a teenage afflux of religiosity.

They may experiment with Islamist politics. They may (wrongly) see the hijab as a symbol of opposition to imperialism and war. They may think wearing the hijab is the only way to establish themselves as grown-up young women in the eyes of boys of their own age.

The probable effect of slapping a blanket legal ban on all those girls will be to push thousands of them out of secular state schools into Muslim schools (only a few in France at present), into Catholic schools (which already in some areas have 70% Muslim students), or, if they are above the school leaving age of 16, into their homes.

It will make fresh recruits for the Islamists, and help them ghettoise young women in their communities.

If in doubt about the likely results of the law, we should err on the side of individual liberty and inclusion.

It is not true that the new law is the only possible barrier to a deluge of Islamisation. The numbers currently wearing the hijab in state schools, at 1200, are lower than in 1999, when there were 2000. Secularism is strong among French state school teachers, and many students too.

Better than hijab-exclusion would be to take a stand on the existing legal position of compulsory inclusion of students in physical education and so on - even if that means taking off the hijab they would wear for, say, maths. Mark Sandell complains that this would be "policed school by school and case by case". But so will be the new law.

I argued that we should oppose pro-hijab demonstrations, and support counter-demonstrations by secularists from the Muslim communities, even when (as in London in February) we have to differentiate within those counter-demonstrations from those who positively support the new French law. How can Mark Sandell describe this as a kneejerk No where the French government says Yes?

And how can he write that I "ignore the results of the British liberal, multi-cultural approach"? My article sounded the alarm at the report in the Independent that Britain now has state schools where the burkha is school uniform.

Finally, it is not true that "the mainstream left" in France supports the new law. The Socialist Party supports it, but the SP has very weak working-class roots. The left in the SP is divided on the law.

The left-wing and strongly secularist teachers' union federation FSU opposes the new law as "counter-productive". So does the French Communist Party - no longer Moscow-run, so probably more sensitive to the views of working-class activists than the SP - and almost all the revolutionary left.

Martin Thomas

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